Night Prey — Behind the Scenes

The Routine

This is the sixth novel in the Prey series, and the author's eighth novel overall. By this point he was really starting to hit his stride. The problem with that is that when you're at a stride, things might start to seem too much the same [1]. And this book very nearly fell into that.
A good novel depends on a balance between three fundamental forces: the plot, the characters, and the writing [2]. You can get away with iffy writing if you've got a stellar plot and engrossing characters [3]. If you're no good with characters, you can make up for it with a gripping plot told well [4]. And if your plot is vague or nonexistent, you can get a lot of milage out of interesting characters interacting in amusing ways [5].
You can't really fail at two of those things: a plot by itself is just an outline, characters by themselves are just character studies, and good writing may serve well as poetry, but it can't be the one thing holding a book up. You need at least two of these things, and it's better with all three.
Before this, the Prey books had all three. The writing, while not as poetic or florid as some, certainly has enough sheer craftsmanship behind it to carry a book. All of the plots have been engaging, and the bland characters have been few or far-between.
This novel is different. The writing style is good enough, of course — it's the same style as in the rest of the books [6] — but the plot is routine. A body is found, the clues are gathered, and eventually it leads to a final confrontation. In this case, the bad guy dies from falling off a tall building, something you usually only see in Hollywood movies [7].
There's no exotic setting or unusual environment. There's no raging winter, no sweltering summer, no long-forgotten woods or seedy urban slums. The Twin Cities is much like most of the other similarly-sized metro areas in America [8].
So that leaves the characters. And that's where we find Meaghan, who has enough character to fill the entire book. She is almost the only thing preventing the book from being a cookie-cutter thriller.
Meaghan is doomed from the outset: she's got cancer, and it's almost certainly terminal, and she's in a downward spiral for however long she has left [9]. Without her personal crusade, and the sense of a time limit that her condition imposes on the plot, the whole plot would just be a routine police investigation. Not even that, most likely.
While it's not technically the first time the author would place characters over plot, this is the first time where the characters really were setting the tone of the novel more than the setting or the plotline. And it wouldn't be the last time.

Weather

Weather Karkinnen, the surgeon who saved Lucas's life at the end of Winter Prey has now moved in with Lucas, as well as taken up a position as a surgeon in the University of Minnesota hospital system [10].
The author also spelled her name wrong for the entire book. In the initial hardcover and the paperbacks, it was spelled "Harkinnen". This mistake is absolutely his fault — it's not from some misplaced editing decision in New York or some simple search-and-replace editor. He just thought it was Harkinnen, and never checked in the previous book.
Well... okay, that happens sometimes. It's embarrassing for the author, and it's embarrassing for the editors [11], but it happens. But there's another question behind it, that has nothing to do with the mistake:
Where does the name Weather Karkinnen even come from? The number of people named Weather is probably quite low in America [12]. So wherefor Weather?
The answer is surprisingly simple for both her first and last name. The first name is the result of a writing trick: come up with a memorable name that's distinct, but not insane [13].
Think about it: the Prey series is set in Minnesota. Logically, something like 40% of the characters should have last names of Johnson, Peterson, Anderson [14]. And yet, the book has last names like Davenport, Sloan, Kruger, Capslock, Roux... nothing common, nothing realistic for the area, but distinct from each other and easily recognizable.
Similarly, look at the first names: Lucas, Harrison, Elle, Del, Rose Marie. Is anybody named John? Or Larry? Or Bob? The answer is yes, but those names are reserved for throwaway characters [15].
The first names can't be insane, but they can't be too common. The last names can be practically anything, as long as they're distinct from all the other names.
Therefore, Weather. It's an instantly recognizable word — everybody knows it — but you're not going to confuse her name with anyone else in the book. Same thing with her last name: Karkinnen is a valid Finnish name, or at least a close approximation thereof, but you're not going to run into many of them in the course of a novel [16].
The canon in-book explanation for her name is even there in Winter Prey. Weather says, of her father, "Mom says he was always talking about the weather — 'If the weather holds, if the weather turns.' Like that. So when I was born, they called me Weather." [17]
And really, I think most people know at least one person with a name stranger than Weather [18].

Animal Cruelty

In this book, Robert Koop — an extremely bad person — kills a dog. The dog is just in the way, and he kills it without remorse.
I have received a lot of mail from animal rights activists, complaining about the senseless killing of dogs and cats in the books. Obviously (these letters go) the author must actually be a depraved animal-hating psychopath to be able to write about it.
Author S.M. Stirling once said, "There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is 'idiot'."
The author does not condone animal cruelty in any sense. He is both a dog-lover and a cat-lover. His kids have six cats between them [19], and everyone in the entire extended family has an extraordinary empathy where animals are involved.
Yes, dogs and cats have been killed in Sandford books. The killings are done by extremely bad people, and the killings are used as examples of these extremely bad people being extremely bad people by virtue of doing extremely bad things [20].
The author has also written about murder, but does not murder people. Some of his characters have burned down houses, but the amount of actual arson in the family is quite low indeed [21]. There's a lot of sexual assault over the course the series, but it's zero with regard to the author and his family.
The books are fiction, and the killing of animals is, yes, a cheap literary trick. It is also an extremely effective literary trick. And after all that, what happens in the books is still orders of magnitude less horrible than a lot of the very real abuse that happens to real world animals. Please, please, stop attacking the author with the assumption that he's as bad as the extremely bad people he writes about, or you might just be the idiot that S.M. Stirling talked about.

Footnotes

1. My uncle Steve once said that "If you're in a rut, remember that a rut is a grave with the ends kicked out." [22] A comfortable routine can last for a long, long time, but from a different point of view all you're doing is delaying the inevitable.

2. There are lots of writing theories out there, about how to do what, and this one's mine. It's far from original, and it's not meant to be a "This is the only way" explanation. It's just my take on things [23].

3. Although for people who have this problem, it might be better to go into screenwriting. There are a lot of screenwriters who can write great movies, but whose actual written prose just falls flat.

4. And this is the realm of pulp action heroes and heroines. Some of the plots and adventures are imaginative as all get-out, and the writing is fast and breezy, but the main character is one story is interchangeable with any main character in any other story in that genre, save for a few minor quirks.

5. I feel that a lot of the Coen brothers' movies fall into this category. The Big Lebowski is casual and breezy, while the plot is almost entirely irrelevant, but wow those characters are above and beyond the call of characterization. Or something like that.

6. The author's style has evolved over the past thirty years. That's only natural [24]. It's become more streamlined, less descriptive, more punchy. It's just a matter of degree though, rather than a huge change. If you look at the early books and compare them to the more recent ones, they read differently, but you can still detect the same voice behind them. And if you read them all as they were coming out, the slow transition from the early style to the later style was probably imperceptible.

7. I still view it as one of the most contrived moments in the whole of the Prey series, and yet it still works. As with all things opinion-related, Your Milage May Vary.

8. The major cities aren't indistinguishable, but there's a distressing sameness to them that quite honestly drags me down. I've done a lot of cross-country driving, and I love the differences in terrain between California, New Mexico, Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado... but the cities themselves all feel like the same thing on a greater or lesser scale [25].

9. This is almost exactly what happened to the author's wife less than a decade later. The hardest part was the downward spiral towards the end, where the end was inevitable and it was just a question of when, but every cycle was just a little lower than the last [26].

10. A lot of people ask what book this change happened in, when in fact it happened between the books. A lot of major life events — moving, getting married, having kids — get shuffled off into the "between the books" limbo, because putting them in the books would slow the plot down to a snail's pace. Yes, they might be interesting in and of themselves, but unless they relate to the plot directly, they shouldn't be there. It's a harsh rule, but these are meant to be thrillers. Moving a hundred boxes from a house to a truck and then from the truck to a new house does not constitute thrilling.

11. And that includes me. I missed this error, and I feel bad about it. I try to say things like, "Well, it's only in the book three or four times" but the fact remains that everyone missed it, and it shouldn't have been missed.

12. And don't even get me started on the surname "Capslock". In short: it doesn't exist [27].

13. If your character is named John Smith, consider changing it. Similarly, if your character is named Blivit Quiznot, consider changing it [28].

14. That's if they're Swedish. If they're Norwegian, it's Johnsen, Petersen, Anderson, etc.

15. In Stephan Pastis's comic strip Pearls Before Swine all of the Crocs are named Larry and Bob. The ones named Bob tend to not survive very long [29].

16. I'm leaving out an unusual tidbit. The Playboy centerfold model for their December 1988 issue was Kata Kärkkäinen. A seemingly irrelevant coincidence, except that this specific issue was buried under the paperwork of the author's computer desk (and thus occasionally unearthed) for years. I think he took Weather's last name from her, although I can't prove it with absolute certainty.

17. I suspect that her parents may have experimented with a wide array of questionable pharmaceuticals in the 1960. Just sayin'.

18. Says the person named "Roswell" [30].

19. My wife and I have Alpha, Beta, Smalltiny, and Grey Cat. My sister and her husband have Boa and Pebble. The author and his wife have a dog named Piper, and another named Scout.

20. And even then the killings aren't described in excessive detail. Mostly they happen, and are done, and that's it. I sort of wonder about the people who describe animal killings in graphic detail, like they're a little too interested. You know who you are.

21. I won't say that there's none at all, because one day I had a really bad Windows 95 install experience and, well, it kinda ended with a small gasoline fire. I figure that's a pretty common experience. And anyway, those discs deserved it.

22. It's a common enough quote of uncertain origin, but the first time I heard it was from my Uncle Steve.

23. And then remember, on top of all that, I'm just the author's son. I don't have anything published under my own name. Sure, I've helped a lot with the books, but that's a far cry from writing them.

24. I still get complaints that the author's style has changed since 1989. Well of course it has. And of course people complain. Quite honestly, there's nothing people won't complain about if they think there's something in it for them [31].

25. There's a freeway loop around Indianapolis that I took once, and my brain glitched and I navigated on autopilot like I was on the Twin Cities freeway loop of 494 / 694. The sad part is that it worked. Logically I should have ended up in East Palookaville or something, but I ended up exactly where I needed to be, without maps, without thinking, and without ever having been there before.

26. After the original diagnosis and the chemotherapy, she was more-or-less clear for four years. Then she had a relapse, and they found out the cancer had metastasized, and that's basically a death sentence. She lasted a year and a bit after that, but that's a very loose use of "lasted". What with the downward spiral of it, there didn't seem to be much left at the end. It still gets me down.

27. His last name is actually some obscure eastern European surname — Czech or Polish or something — with a passing similarity to "Caps Lock" [32]. His grandfather changed it shortly after moving to America, and everyone thinks he got it from an old typewriter keyboard. Del could never find any trace of family records when he did a post-college year traveling Europe, and he kind of suspects that Gramps was running from the KGB. Or worse.

28. Unless you're Phil Foglio. In which case, carry on.

29. Some have actually died before they were named in the strip. That's pretty bad luck, yep.

30. It's a family name. Nothing to do with UFOs or aliens or Area 51. I have to explain it almost every time I meet someone new. I should just make a PowerPoint presentation and get it over with.

31. Complaining about things is one of my strengths, and I try to stick to it.

32. And before anyone asks, I've cleared it with the author and this explanation is canon. It'll never be in any of the books, but it's canon.